Leonard Bernstein’s music for Broadway still packs a punch

03/31/2014 12:35 PM

03/31/2014 12:35 PM

Who can resist the music of Leonard Bernstein?

If you’re a baby boomer (or older), you may remember his “Young People’s Concerts” for CBS. As music director of the New York Philharmonic and composer for orchestras and films, Bernstein single-handedly brought classical music to a huge swath of Americans. He was sophisticated in his approach, yet not condescending — a brilliant teacher who was able to communicate clearly and concisely

In other words, despite Bernstein’s rarefied classical music training, he was no snob and had a strong appreciation for musical theater. He teamed up with a virtual Who’s Who of American lyricists such as Betty Comden and Adolph Green in “On the Town” and “Wonderful Town,” Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, poet Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim in “Candide.” A younger Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Bernstein’s masterwork, “West Side Story.”

“Bernstein’s Broadway,” produced by Musical Theater Heritage, is an excellent venue for Bernstein’s musical theater vision because of its spare cabaret setting. The stage is adorned with three black-and-white photos of Bernstein: as a young adult, in his prime and as an

eminence grise,

with a tousled white mane and baton in hand. On either side of the stage are illuminated covers of the original playbills of his four Broadway musicals.

The lead performers — Alison Sneegas Borberg, Jacob Aaron Cullum, Ben Gulley, Justin G. McCoy, and Stefanie Wienecke — all have terrific, strong voices. The standout is Wienecke, who is sexy, smart and playful in “Come Up to My Place” from “On the Town” and “Conga” from “Wonderful Town.”

Ben Gulley demonstrates a wide theatrical range, from spot-on comic timing in “Bon Voyage” from “Candide” to his heart-rending version of “Maria” from “West Side Story.”

Sneegas Borberg has a mesmerizing soprano voice, but her singing somehow seems too high-pitched and breathy for the role of Maria in “West Side Story.” Her voice absolutely soars in her other numbers.

Cullum is able to play cute and innocent as a sailor on shore leave in New York in “On The Town” and tough as Riff in “West Side Story.” McCoy has a booming, attention-getting voice that blends and harmonizes well with the other cast members. The other performers include Tyler Eisenreich (who sings a convincing “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story”), Megan Herrera, Robert Hingula, Megan Horsman, Linnaia McKenzie, Kami Rogers and Bob Wearing.

MTH founder George Harter as narrator adeptly weaves together the backgrounds of the musicals and of the life (and death) of Leonard Bernstein. He even gets to ham it up and play the role of Officer Krupke in “West Side Story.” Artistic director Sarah Crawford served as the co-writer of the show.

Not all of Bernstein’s musicals have stood the test of time. The original “Candide” played only two months on Broadway and has undergone many tweaks over the years in subsequent productions.

But there is no question that Bernstein reached the pinnacle of his artistic genius in “West Side Story.” Who can keep a dry eye during any of those powerhouse songs? I dare you.

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